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Bright Students Light Path for Struggling Youth

“What am I capable of? What is my direction in life?”

It is a mentor’s job to help a young person answer questions like these. Such guidance is invaluable as adolescents strive to find their individual niches in an ever more complicated world. Warren Evans, VCOM–Carolinas Class of 2020, has a vision of helping them find answers.

“What a mentor does is help others see their potential,” Evans says. “Once you see your potential, then you can develop a vision. But you have to first see that potential.”

Mentoring has become something of a personal mission for Evans, who currently serves as Student Body President for the Class of 2020. His own mentors guided him on his path to medical school, an extraordinary journey outside the bounds of convention.

“Anybody with a past that is ‘non-traditional’ is going to have a hard time getting into medical school,” he says. “It took me two years of applying. I had great mentors, who were practicing physicians. They guided me every step of the way. We did practice interviews, everything.”

Evans, 32, certainly has a past that qualifies as ‘non-traditional.’ One of seven children in a family from the small town of Pine Hills, Florida, his educational and work background does not fit the mold for a typical med student.

“The schools were really bad,” he says of Pine Hills. “There’s a lot of gang activity in the area, a lot of drug problems and things like that, so my mom decided she would rather home school us and keep us out of the schools. She was homeschooling all seven of us at one time.”

Things took a turn for the worse for the family when Evans’ mother turned ill and his father lost his job. Education, for Warren Evans, had to take a back seat for a while.

“I really had no formal high school education,” he says. “I went to a tech college so I could take basic math skills and get the G.E.D. I didn’t have any interest in medicine whatsoever, and education was something that didn’t matter to me because I was in survival mode.”

With his family in such dire straits, Evans sought employment in lieu of education. He knew he loved helping people, which led him to pursue a career as a fire fighter. Working for the Apopka, Florida Fire Department presented new opportunities.

“I loved the job, and they offered for me to go to paramedic school,” Evans says. “That was intimidating because at that point, I could read OK, but I couldn’t do much math at all. I was 20 years old and I didn’t have the educational skills of a high schooler. So I started taking remedial classes. They wouldn’t let me take college math. I couldn’t add or subtract negative numbers. I couldn’t write very well, my grammar was pretty poor. I was very deficient in those areas.”

But, with the help of good mentoring, Evans found the potential for more. “This is why the mentoring is so important to me,” he says. “The mentors that I had in my life made all the difference. I wouldn’t be where I’m at today if I didn’t have them.”

Among those mentors were Lt. R.L. Colina and Chief Steven Page of the Apopka FD. “The fire department said ‘If you want, we’ll send you to medic school.’ They had us go do rotations in the hospital and I saw doctors practicing, and a lightbulb turned on for me. I talked to my mentors about it. They said ‘you can do this.’ I said ‘I can’t add and subtract numbers!’ They made me know my potential.”

In keeping with VCOM’s mission to serve the underserved, Evans hopes to inspire the same self-knowledge and confidence in Spartanburg District 7’s high school students, especially those with greater obstacles to success.

“This is why I wanted to start the mentor program, because those mentors were so key to helping me every step of the way, even getting into med school,” he says. “My main goal for the kids is to help them realize what they are capable of. A lot of students that we work with live in poverty, and the last thing on their minds is college. It’s helping them realize their capabilities.”

With Dr. Sonia Leverette of the Spartanburg County School Administration, Evans has started just such a program, to an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response. While he imagined only half a dozen of his fellow VCOM students signing up as mentors for the program, the number so far is over ten times that.

“I need to inspire as many people as I can to be interested in this,” Evans says. “With every meeting I attend in which I have something I’m proposing, I start with ‘why,’ not ‘how’ or ‘what’ or the logistics of how we’re going to get it done. That’s important, but you start with ‘why.’ I told them a little of my background, I told them what we’re going to offer these kids and instead of what I expected – five or six people – we’re almost at 70. It’s amazing.”

Among those volunteer mentors are Carrie Downing-Larick, VCOM–Carolinas Class of 2020, and Aubrey Jones and Johnny Efstathiades, both Class of 2021, who will take over when Evans and Downing-Larick leave for rotations.

Evans’ message to Spartanburg’s youth is simple and clear. “It doesn’t matter where you come from, it doesn’t matter how deficient you are in any skill,” he says. “These kids are having a hard time with algebra and they’re fifteen. I’m like, ‘listen, I couldn’t add when I was 20!’”

The Mentor Program’s mission to lead young people to realize their full potential is the result of two things: the needs of this community and the vision of Warren Evans, reflecting VCOM’s dedication to focusing on the underserved. With his commitment as well as that of other VCOM students in collaboration with Spartanburg High School District 7, the city’s future looks a little brighter.